Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why America is losing the battle for hearts and minds in Pakistan

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent more than $5 billion in Pakistan over the last decade to build schools, provide safe drinking water, fund earthquake reconstruction and other projects aimed at wooing Pakistani public support for America. But open any Pakistani newspaper and you’re unlikely to ever find even a sentence of praise for this aid. Instead, the message of America’s good deeds is drowned out nearly every day by relentless press criticism of America’s policies in the region.

“US mocks Pak demand with fresh drone strike,” declared a typical headline this month in Express Tribune, an English language Pakistani newspaper affiliated with the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

“USAID can spend billions of dollars to build infrastructure in Pakistan,” said Lawrence Pintak, dean of Washington State University’s College of Communication. “But one drone attack can undo all that good will.”

Pintak, whose academic research focuses on journalists in the Muslim world, recently completed a survey of 395 Pakistani journalists to study their attitudes toward America.

Pakistani journalists have often been blamed for stoking anti-American sentiment in the country. But Pintak’s survey reveals that, contrary to popular perception, most Pakistani journalists – 76 percent of those responding to his poll – actually hold a positive view of America and the American people.

What they don’t like, according to the poll, is American foreign policy.

For example, in the questionnaire, which was administered locally by Pakistani newspaper editor Syed Javed Nazir, 84 percent of Pakistani journalists said they believe America is “unjustly meddling in Pakistani politics.” And two-thirds of those who responded defined the controversial U.S. drone attacks – which are meant to target militants in tribal areas but also can result in heavy civilian casualties - as an “act of terrorism.”

“It’s the policy, stupid,” said Pintak, who argues that “Pakistani journalists are not inherently anti-American but are fed up with America’s policies in the region.”

Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News, an English-language daily published by one of the leading media groups in Pakistan, said coverage in papers like his reflects the public sense of “imperial arrogance” in U.S. policies. “We only get to experience the hard power of the US,” he said. “We are not treated as human beings.”

No U.S. policy draws greater fire from the Pakistani media than the drone campaign. More recently, media have also lashed out at a covert deal that resulted in Pakistan’s release of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was arrested in Lahore earlier this year after shooting two Pakistani men in broad daylight.

“Imagine what would happen if the situation was reversed,” said Cheema, the investigative reporter. “What if a Pakistani murdered two Americans in broad day light? You would expect criminal proceedings. But these standards are not applied when it comes to Pakistani deaths.”

The day after Davis’s controversial release, a U.S. drone attack killed over 40 people in Pakistan’s tribal areas, giving Pakistani media a fresh angle for their anger.

“Drones celebrate Raymond release by killing 41,” complained one stinging headline in The News. An editor at the paper, Ansar Abasi, described the timing of the two events this way: “Within 24 hours of the shameless release and handing over of the American double murderer Raymond Davis to the US, Washington gifted Pakistan with one of the deadliest drone attacks in North Waziristan, killing more than 40 innocent tribals attending a Jirga.”

At Dawn, another prominent English-language paper, columnist Khalid Aziz wrote with similar frustration: “Just when patience was needed for the Pakistanis’ anger to subside over the release of Raymond Davis, we heard of multiple drone strikes that killed more than 40 persons attending a jirga in Datta Khel, North Waziristan.”
Civilian casualties in drone attacks serve as a regular news hook for Pakistani journalists to express their anger at America’s policies in the region.
Things get even more complicated when the media write about the increasingly unpopular Pakistani government’s close ties with the U.S.

“I fail to understand how these drone attacks occur without approval from the Pakistani government,” said Hassan Chaudhry, a national pages sub-editor at Express Tribune. “There has to be an under-the-table deal between both governments. I don’t know… maybe money is being exchanged too.”

Chaudhry is echoing a growing belief that U.S. drone attacks cannot occur without covert support from the Pakistani state apparatus. But the Pakistani government does not reveal the exact nature of the deal that allows the U.S, to conduct drone attacks deep inside Pakistani territory. Publicly, the government continues to demand that the U.S. end drone strikes in the country.

Cheema, who received an award at Syracuse University this week for investigative reporting that has often angered the Pakistani government, argues that Pakistani journalists simply mirror the views of their fellow countrymen, who happen to be vehemently anti-American despite the large amounts of U.S. aid poured into Pakistan.

“Why do so many Pakistanis hate the U.S.?” Cheema asked rhetorically. “Because money isn’t a substitute for self-respect. We don’t want to feel that we receive dollars one day and the next day some of our countrymen are killed in return.”

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